House-Senate energy conferees met formally yesterday to discuss natural gas pricing but produced only a shouting match on the rightness or wrongness of closed meetings which led to a tentative agreement by a negotiating team.
The agreement drafted by about a dozen of the 42 conferees at a series of meetings that began before Christmas provides for gradual removal of price controls from newly discovered natural gas by 1985.
Estimates of what will cost consumers vary according to assumptions of what it will mean in terms of increased production and reduced dependence on high-cost imported fuel. The staff of the House Energy subcommittee estimates that the agreement would increase producers' revenues $9 billion above what they would receive by 1985 under existing law. This would be 6 percent more than the $148 billion total by 1985 estimated under existing regulations. James Flug, director of Energy Action and a staunch opponent of deregulation, said the agreement would give industry $50 billion.
Leaders in the House-Senate negotiations were longtime supporters of federal regulation of gas flowing across state lines. But Reps. Harley staggers (D-W.Va.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.) joined yesterday in urging conference approval on grounds that this was the best compromise that could be devised. The House had approved President Carter's plan to continue regulation and extend it to intrastate gas, but the Senate voted to deregulate new gas after two years.
Jackson said the compromise went down the center of the road ideologically and served the public interest by "providing some certainty about how we will handle natural gas." A solution to the question of how to price natural gas has eluded Congress for 24 years since the Supreme Court ruled that interstate gas could be regulated by the federal government.
The purpose of yesterday's meeting was to put the agreement in the hands of the entire conference and schedule a business session for next Tuesday when it will be debated.
Most of yesterday's 1 1/2-hour session was taken up with protests from opponents on the left and right that the closed meetings where the agreement was hammered out were illegal because House rules require that meetings of House-Senate conferences be open to the public.
Negotiators had fended off these complaints throughout their talks by stating that the sessions were not formal conferences but informal discussions. Private talks were essential if the difficult issue was ever to be settled, they said.